Sleep wouldn’t come on Friday night so rather than simply toss and turn upstairs in bed I turned to a holy relic and switched on my much watched and already badly worn tape of the Brentford versus Fulham match. Was it only three short months ago since that magic evening that symbolised everything good about Brentford? I rejoiced in the memories of a performance packed full of energy, skill, confidence, passion and commitment and was struck yet again by the sheer joie de vivre of our approach and the obvious bond and connect between the players, manager and supporters who all came together as one and became a seemingly insuperable force that left Fulham floundering in our wake.
Given the horrors of the past fortnight I wondered if the magic had gone once and for all and if the players and supporters alike would be able to regain their Mojo? On the surface strenuous efforts had been made to paper over the cracks. Mark Warburton had done his imperturbable Zen Master impression, calmly and dispassionately towing the company line in all of his many media appearances. He talked about his gratitude to Matthew Benham for giving him the opportunity in the first place, and his absolute right to take the club in whatever direction he feels is best and how he felt it was better for everyone if he and David Weir were totally honest and parted company with the club at the end of the season if their philosophies differed in how they felt the club should be run moving forward. Who knows what his deep innermost thoughts really are, but he was totally on-message and won the PR battle hands down – not surprising given his extensive media experience obtained whilst running the NextGen series. Cliff Crown also succinctly and convincingly put forward the case regarding Matthew Benham and the Board’s view of the future, and both owner and chairman had visited the training ground on Thursday and had spoken to the players and been grilled about their chosen path.
After last week’s abject surrender against Charlton, nobody really knew how the team would react when there was also the little matter of a match coming up against league leaders Bournemouth, perhaps the best team in the league. All would be revealed on Saturday afternoon and I finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep not knowing what the next day would bring. Would our season get back on track, would the fans back both of their heroes in Benham and Warburton or take sides, an appalling and self-destructive prospect, and would be team merely go through the motions and be picked off contemptuously by a rampant Bournemouth team? Surely their professional pride would not allow that ghastly prospect to come to pass?
I shouldn’t have worried as Brentford rose to the occasion and, totally re-energised, pulled off their most impressive, skilful, determined and passionate performance of the season, and their most important, and proved beyond doubt that they had regained their focus. Whether they were playing for the shirt, themselves, pride, the manager or simply to demonstrate how much they disagree with the owner’s decision is open to question but matters not a jot as Brentford totally overwhelmed Bournemouth and fully merited their three-one victory on the day.
The Gods also decided that we had all suffered enough over the past torrid fortnight and things certainly went our way. Referee Mike Dean gave a performance of sheer Premier League quality, cracking down on our opponents’ niggling and diving. We scored at exactly the right time too with Jonathan Douglas settling nerves by stealing in unnoticed at the back post to convert Alex Prichard’s low centre to round off our first real attack. Bournemouth were reeling as we seized the initiative and never let go for the remainder of the first half. We had regained our touch and played the Brentford way – retaining possession, playing the ball out from the back and probing for openings.
Alan Judge made his long-awaited return from injury and immediately demonstrated how much we had missed his influence. He is a little pocket dynamo whose energy, infectious enthusiasm and ability to see a pass and switch the focus of the attack gave us an edge that we never lost. Alex Prichard too was a man inspired and was touched by genius as Bournemouth couldn’t get near him. He was everywhere, and his work rate and commitment matched his undoubted skill and he was a total inspiration and match-winner with a goal and two assists. Stuart Dallas was given the nod at left back and with the recalled Tony Craig on his right talking him through the match and Judge covering in front of him he rose to the challenge and so frustrated Matt Ritchie that the tricky winger was extremely fortunate not to see red before he was removed for his own protection at the interval.
David Button dominated his area and looked unbeatable but after Jota forced a good low save from Boruc and Pritchard had lobbed a close range chance just wide, Bournemouth equalised well against the run of play when a hopeful ball forward was deflected over Tony Craig by the straining Diagouraga and Pugh scored messily at the second attempt. Would Brentford heads go down? Not a chance, as Dallas immediately played the through ball of the match and set Andre Gray in behind the visitors’ defence. He did everything right, rounded Boruc, kept his head and his angled effort was heading for the unguarded net when Cook appeared seemingly out of a hole in the ground to make an incredible goal-line clearance.
It seemed as if for all Brentford’s efforts they would go into the break level when they deserved far more, but fate smiled on them again. Right on halftime Wilson cynically tripped Judge when the ball had long gone and Alex Prichard’s free kick from over thirty yards was well struck and the ball was moving in the air but it should have been a straightforward save for the keeper, but Boruc had a brainstorm and merely succeeded in flailing the ball into the corner of his own net instead of around the post and Brentford went into the interval with their tails up and the initiative firmly in their grasp.
The second half was a different matter as Bournemouth were stung into action. Substitute right winger Fraser was a tricky customer and tormented the Brentford defence. He combined well with the overlapping Francis and forced Button to push his shot onto the post. That was merely the first of a number of telling saves that the keeper made in order to allow a gritty Brentford team to hold onto their narrow lead. Wilson also lobbed wastefully wide when given a clear sight of an empty net and Brentford put their bodies on the line and defended like heroes with Tarkowski a veritable colossus.
The Bees deservedly weathered the storm and then the tide turned as Bournemouth committed men forward in search of that elusive equaliser and we simply picked them off on the break. Judge went off to a hero’s reception when he had run himself out after an hour but, no matter, Toral was an influential replacement who immediately dominated the midfield. What a prospect that young man is and how I would love us to sign him. Chris Long replaced the tiring Gray and Alan McCormack made his long-awaited return to rampage around the midfield and put even more bite and steel into Brentford’s efforts.
We quite simply have to be the fittest team in the league as we got stronger and faster and more dominant the longer the game went on, and I counted at least seven wonderful chances in the last quarter of the game as we created havoc in the visitors’ defence. Long’s angled effort was pushed around the post by Boruc who was by now the busiest man on the field as he did his utmost to redeem himself and refute the ringing cries of “It’s all your fault” from the merciless Ealing Road tricoteuses.
Jota could have scored four in the last few minutes but somehow missed each time. He hit the bar with a screamer and failed twice when he could see the whites of the keeper’s eyes before then hammering another effort inches past the post. Long also got into the act as his deflected drive clanged off the post. Prichard forced an excellent save from the overworked keeper and by now the game was deep into injury time and we all feared that there might yet be a sting in the tail as Bournemouth still retained the quality to hurt us, and in a game of slim margins teams that fail to put away their chances are often punished late on, but not this time as we strode away yet again and Toral’s clever pass put Prichard in space and his hard low cross was turned in exultantly by the ever-willing Long for his first league goal. He was mobbed and deservedly so and victory was ours.
I have written recently about the fears of a rift and disconnect between all the elements connected with the club but yesterday’s victory and the way in which it was achieved has played no small part in bringing us all back together again. Of course we regret how things have turned out over the last fortnight and I desperately wish that we could turn the clock back but we can’t, and it is probably wishful thinking to expect Benham and Warburton to get around a table and put their differences behind them, but what yesterday clearly demonstrated is that wounded though we might appear to be to outsiders, the players are clearly back on board and we still have a chance of achieving our aims this season and reaching the holy grail of the Premier League. Bring on Blackpool!